Vintage Hills will now be known as Independence Village, our mom says on the call. The place is a four-story residence south of town, about the size of a Hampton Inn. It’s where you might end up if you were once a doctor or a university professor or if, like our grandpa, you bought some land when land was cheap. Our grandma lives there alone in a two-bedroom unit. From her window, she has a view of a lot like the one our grandpa bought, then sold, where new construction has not stopped for the pandemic.
My parents and sisters come to the window to wave through the glass at our grandma, who is blind. Most days, she paces the hallway outside her door, and because of this, our parents are persuaded that she loves walking. If she came to live with them, they wonder, where would she walk?
She travels a corridor lined with wreaths, sensing the wall with her hand while staff members stride past. Her walking is compensatory, I think, not a pleasure—not liberating, if you ask me. But I’m not there, so what can I say?
I’m in the home of a woman who’s dying. She lies in a hospital bed in the center of the loft. While she sleeps, I speak softly, sitting under a duvet to muffle the sound. When she asked me to come, she thought maybe one week. Then what? I wondered, but failed to ask.
She’s a Taurus, she informs me. She presides over her dying with authority and boarding school precision. She dislikes my coffee and distrusts the way I fold her laundry. She keeps the contents of her stomach in a tote bag beside her. The bag is printed with a picture of a pigeon. Her pigeon bag, she calls it. I mark time in four-hour allotments, drawing down portions of liquid in a series of syringes that she plunges under her tongue. Still, she’s seized by spasms.
On the call, our parents are weighing the pros and cons of Vintage Hills, now Independence Village. What names! Nostalgic for some earlier clod of dirt, enamored of some prior formation now foregone by residents who receive their meals on plastic trays. Independence. But something about the name rings true, because the beauty shop has been closed until further notice, group activities canceled, visitors banned. The name, shimmering with its terminal premise, is almost patriotic.
Our mom repeats the word walking. But wouldn’t it be better, my sister asks, if she came to live with one of us?
The woman’s main concern is her bowels. They inflict on her an urgent, total violence. She wonders aloud if this is some sort of payback, as though the universe shares her own strict accounting.
Pay-for-play, a friend says, describing doula services for the dying. But there’s little play, at this point, in the loft. Still, I think—never let them see you sweat.
To the therapist, she worries whether she’s left something undone. She’s been having weird dreams, says the woman. She thinks they’re related to the spasms. They seem to symbolize something she hasn’t cleared up. She wonders what it is—what she hasn’t taken care of. It’s not obvious, she says, which seems to suggest that it’s something to do with her. The therapist says, What do you mean? Maybe there’s something in herself that she hasn’t taken care of, the woman says. But she can’t think of what.
Our grandma doesn’t want to be a burden, which is why she won’t consent to move in with our parents. I’ll probably be the same way, says our mom—whether with pride or despair, it’s hard to tell.
Our dad wants to honor our grandma’s wishes. He’s big on signs of respect. Respect, my sister observes later, is one of those things that a dictator loves. Care, it seems, is not.
On the woman’s shelves, I find exhibition catalogues, books on color theory and sacred circles, and a slim volume called Art Versus Illness. The author, writing after the Second World War, aims to “recount some of the more ambitious artistic aspirations of the human mind during illness and convalescence.” He has the outlook of a soldier. He recalls the hostile presence of a potted plant beside his bed while recovering from surgery. The cyclamen “is not a particularly pretty flower,” he writes. “It has no scent, revives no sentimental memories, but grows aloof in chill celibacy and takes an unconscionable time a-dying.” He regards illness, like the plant, as an adversary. Art plays a role, somehow. To occupy time and space, he suggests, the “bedder” may apply himself to drawing.
This woman can no longer draw or paint, but she likes to talk about colors. Earth tones, the nurse tells her, until one day I just broke out in florals.
The woman has thoughts about the lighting in the loft. The fixtures should all be replaced! I say, Oh? For the exhibition, she says.
Coleridge defined painting as “the indeterminate somewhat between a thought and a thing,” and, as a treatment for disease, “seems to be precisely what the doctor ordered.” I picture the dim space between thing and thought. On either side, the ends of the spectrum begin to extend as far as they’ll reach—on the one hand, a commodity bonanza, and on the other, an appalling void.
She’s lost her pigeon bag, she says, coming out of the bathroom. I find the bird swamped in the toilet bowl and evidence of her bowels on the floor.
Something else that lies between a thought and a thing, I think: money. Our grandpa sold the land for a million dollars, he told our sister before he died. It wasn’t like him to boast, but by then he was starting to lose it. When the matter of money appeared—definite, crude, an awkward matter—she made a sound like a laugh.
Before he sold the land, our grandpa was already selling dirt. I remember the yellow Post-It notes where we tallied the dump trucks that came down the hill. The dirt meant the developers had arrived, erecting bloc-like housing subdivisions and new office parks. At the window, we helped our grandma keep count. When the trucks were done for the day, my older sister and I liked to climb the long slope toward the stand of trees at the property line and descend into the tangled ravine. Now, the hill is graded and covered with single- and double-wide trailers. The mobile home park has grown up around the house where our grandparents lived, which once looked down on what they had built.
On the group text, a friend says she’s studying her family tree. She’s learned of a trio of sisters on her mother’s side named Iva, Uva, and Eva. What was their last name, we want to know. My friend says, Fish.
I hear from someone who’s sold her home in the suburbs for a farm: All I ever wanted is forty acres and a mule! White people, I think. Seizing the promise of Reconstruction, made to someone else. But we’ve always told ourselves this lie—claim it, clear it, clean fill dirt.
I’ve a fish! You’ve a fish! We’ve a fish! we howl.
Waiting outside the bathroom door, I receive a text: I’m so horny for you. I respond with an emoji. I can’t think about sex right now. Instead, I think of literature about sex—the school of embodiment, a phrase I recently read, designating a loose cohort of writers linked by the Beats and by a devotion to the body, argues the author, or sex. The body—its mess—makes its own ethical demands, I think was part of the point.
When the woman comes out of the bathroom, she tells me about the Toilet Project—an exhibition, she says, featuring a series of toilets, each with a different decorative theme. One was America, one was flowery, there was one about a kitchen and another domestic one. You were supposed to try out these toilets and send in your comments. She says, You got a free penny if you flushed at the end. What if you didn’t flush? I ask. She can’t remember what happened then.
Her friends bring things they think she’ll like—broths, lozenges, dried flowers, perhaps to pre-empt decay. Maybe they know the malignancy of a living plant, like the soldier’s potted cyclamen or Sylvia Plath’s tulips, devouring the air, their red mouths filling the room with noise.
A neighbor brings his camera and photographs the woman in the gray light where she reclines. I hear the click of the shutter from the other end of the loft. Her hands are in her hair—the gesture of a pinup model or someone clutching at the roots of her scalp to find the place where the pain lives. While he shoots, the neighbor talks to her about the building, the board, liability insurance. He asks how she’s feeling. Everything’s been done, she tells him. It’s simple, really, because she has no kids to pass things on to. Would she have liked to have kids, he asks. Sure, she tells him. She would’ve liked that very much. Studies have shown, the man says, that women without children live longer. They tend to have happier lives. Having a kid, my god! he says. His own daughter has cost him so much sleep. Then he gathers his things. He’d like to come see her again. What’s your schedule? he asks, shouldering his bag.
I receive deliveries from the pharmacy at night, lifted from bed by the buzzer in the darkened loft. In the doorway, I nod solemnly to the young man who holds out the white paper bag, then backs away, wordless.
The social worker, I treat with indifference. The young woman wears gold-rimmed glasses shaped like stop signs. She practices a kind of active listening that my sister and I call sportscasting. You’re feeling vulnerable, she says. You’re in pain.
The woman who is dying wants to know what she’s getting, what time, and why. It’s not at all clear to her. She’d like us to establish a chart, because someone in the building is giving out false drugs. I hold up the in-home patient medication tracking sheet provided by hospice for noting the date and time of each dose, along with the events of her bowels. She waves the paper away, saying, A map is not the territory.
I tell her, You’re feeling vulnerable. You’re in pain.
I speak on the phone with a man who refers his clients to agencies that provide home healthcare aides. I just need a few hours a week, I plead. He has an agency in mind that employs wonderful women—artists, actresses, according to him. These are women like me, he says, though I’ve told him nothing about me. They bring a social component to their work. He suggests I register with the agency myself when I’m done with this job. Please mention my name when you call, he says. I thank him and wonder about all these women like me, maybe stalled in their art or starved for time, waitresses now for an imperious one-top.
The woman who comes to clean the loft is paid $75 an hour. I am paid about $10 an hour, or $250 a day, an economy of scale I find funny. When I suggest that my mom hire herself to care for our grandma, she does not respond. Maybe, like me, she suspects there’s not enough money in the world.
When we run out of minutes, someone sends a new link, and we start the call again.
She’s sleeping more and eating less, I tell the nurse. Her hair is coming out in clumps. I’ve decided not to cry. The nurse is a frontline worker. She’s given birth, she’s told us, and done time in the Army, and endured terrible pain herself, and so I will not ask the nurse to reassure me. I listen quietly while she explains what to expect as the body prepares. For? says the woman who is dying.
When we were young, my sisters and I devised different methods for surviving our childhood: lies, refusals, incontinence, defiance, binges, suppressions, withdrawal, feigned illness. We fought over the Sunday papers. We tiptoed across the lawn. Once, I didn’t shit for days. For our unrehearsed subversions, our parents had one, ample recourse, which we now deploy. I am disgusted, my sister tells them.
Later, I dream of our mom standing alone at the front of the church. She’s there to sing a solo. She fumbles with the instructions and apologizes for not being a conventional beauty. In the dream, I get up to join her, because who can escape the dull observance of her mother’s guilt?
Tonight, the woman is furious. She insists this is not her apartment. She needs to go to three-eleven. Three-eleven is where she lives. Who knows where she’s getting this—what current of mind has surfaced this number, a former address or important date. Where are her keys? she demands. She lunges into the room, thrusting her walker before her, the pigeon bag swinging from her wrist. She’s been duped, she thinks. Of course, I say. I’ll take you home—but this is one more con. This exhibition is not where she lives—this riveting pain, the smudge from her bowels, the toilet that promises a prize when you flush, all of it mounted for strangers, including the nurse, the social worker, the therapist assigned to her case, the young man from the pharmacy, me, all of us saying kindly, Ah, murmuring encouragement about the work.
Any day now, our parents believe, the plexiglass partition will be installed at Vintage Hills, now Independence Village. Soon, indoor visits will resume. Our grandma will arrive in a room, her walking having reached its point. She’ll take a seat on one side of the glass—expectant, unseeing—and who can say what will appear.